Surviving cancer gives CU student new perspective on life

Published: May 5, 2014

All CU-Boulder students set goals for themselves, like studying abroad, gaining research experience or landing the right internship. For Matthew Cirac, a 23-year-old graduating senior, the main goal he sought to accomplish was to finish school – after fighting stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer his junior year.

Cirac, who will receive a bachelor's degree in sociology on May 9, describes himself as business-minded with a creative spirit. Finishing up his degree from home in Calabasas, Calif., Cirac is also the vice chairman of the Young People’s Advisory Committee for Teen Cancer America, a charity sponsored by Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend of The Who.

Cirac was diagnosed mid-semester in the spring of his junior year, which was also during mid-term exams. Assuming he had the symptoms of a stressed out college kid, or had developed something like a cold or flu, he didn’t think much of it at first. But when antibiotics didn’t work, and he began to lose vision in one eye, Cirac went to the ER at Boulder Community Hospital.

“The room kind of went black and white,” said Cirac, describing the moment when test results came back. “My body went into shock.”

Almost immediately, he began high dosage chemotherapy and spent the rest of that week in Boulder. The room, he said, was full of people – roommates, friends and some people he didn’t “even expect to see.” Back in California, he had just as many visitors. Several of his CU friends flew out to spend time with him –many joined in shaving their heads. Between visitors, Netflix and FaceTime chatting with another CU friend in Barcelona, Cirac’s hospital days fell short of mundane.

“I got the study abroad experience from the convenience of my hospital bed,” he said, thinking back to his FaceTime tours. “I think that was something that really gave me the strength to keep on going.”

Cirac also kept a notebook to keep track of certain days, like when he had bone marrow biopsies or spinal taps. He described it as a way to track his cancer journey. He also created a mental list of milestones, or points in time that he would reach after completing his chemotherapy treatment.

“I decided that, you know, six months out of treatment… one year out of treatment… and then two years out of treatment… those were the big milestones that I envisioned,” Cirac said. “And graduation is definitely a big milestone, because I didn’t even think I was going to make it to the end of the year.”

In July 2012, Cirac completed his treatment and began physical therapy to regain strength. Combined with his drive to get back to school, Cirac said that the more cancer survivors he met, the easier it became to transition back to the real world.

“It was like, you’re done with chemo, and now you’re on your way," he said. "There’s nothing really that prepared me for it. There’s no book on it. Talking to other survivors was key.”

One of the survivors Cirac met was Daniel Bral, a UCLA student who also worked at the hospital. He was part of a program that aimed to create an “age-targeted teen and young adult cancer zone,” a unit of the hospital that would treat patients ages 13 - 26 . When Cirac went through chemotherapy, he was 21 years old and was placed in geriatrics, where the youngest is typically about 45 years old. At the same time, he met other patients who were just shy of his age at 18, but these individuals were treated in the pediatrics wing with much younger children.

Considering how much strength he received from friends and family – and the problem he saw in separating teens from young adults – Cirac wanted to give back to the cancer community. When he met Bral, they joined forces with a UCLA advisory board and worked to open a teen and young adult unit at the UCLA Santa Monica Hospital. The hospital now provides age-targeted care for teen and young adult cancer patients.

As he became more involved, Cirac was offered an opportunity to become the vice chairman of the Young People’s Advisory Committee for Teen Cancer America.

“It’s a charity, so it’s all volunteer work,” he added. On top of volunteering, Cirac completed his final five classes to graduate online. He now looks forward to the prospects that his degree and interest in creative marketing will bring. Overall, though, he is taking it all in.

“Cancer gave me a new perspective on life, that you can’t take anything for granted,” said Circac. “I’m trying to live to the fullest.”

Photo courtesy of Matthew Cirac.